A Golden Spinning Wheel of earthy colors started churning under Daniel Harding’s baton-less hands when he led the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s orchestral ballad on June 26th at the Herkulessaal. Though pleasant all the way, there wasn’t much of a long line that kept your attention. Harding did his part to get the well oiled machine that is the BRSO to stir up grand emotion and drama at the appropriate points (some of which are rather Mendelssohnesque), but ultimately it’s not a particularly strong piece of music. Tchaikovskean excess here and there, a grateful triangle part, and otherwise a dawdle of light Dvořák. Harding, a young Steve McQueen of the conductor’s rostrum, got the wind and brass to sound dry and detailed, but didn’t get far beyond the gentle meaninglessness of it all.
The reason to attend was in any case Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Swiss-born, German-Canadian Michael Schade and Christian Gerhaher. Just in time for the 100 year anniversary of its composition, it won’t be the last time Munich audiences will hear Das Lied between now and the 100th anniversary of its premiere in Munich under Bruno Walter (1911). There will more even performances, too, but if the alto/baritone part will be bettered is questionable.
Harding, who has just recently recorded the Mahler 10th Symphony (in the Cooke III performing version), didn’t seek any of the high romantic spirit that Bernstein displays in his Vienna recording (also the tenor/baritone version). Instead, and perhaps thus in keeping with the 10th (member of this unofficial last symphonic triptych that also includes Das Lied and the Ninth Symphony), Harding shaped individual voices nicely, gave his precise cues, but got little out of it that might be described as a unifying impression. Somehow the sounds didn’t coalesce and instead disturbed more than they can, as it is. Because to these ears this ‘song-symphony’ is already the most impenetrable of Mahler’s works, that wasn’t an auspicious beginning.
Surely part of the difficultly of Das Lied lies in its fiendishly difficult tenor part. It would take a singer of Heldentenor-stature, or one whose voice can cut naturally through the orchestra, to make this sound anything less than a struggle. Schade, although his torso has grown like Barry Bond’s since I last saw him, is not such a singer. He remains an, albeit dramatic, Mozart tenor. And if the word “struggle” might be an unfair word to use, he threw himself at the music more valiantly than successfully. All too often his voice was covered by the playing of the Bavarians.
Gerhaher could not have been a greater contrast to the operatic style of Schade. It was either revelatory and possibly even comical, just how telling and obvious the differences were between the operatic and the Lied-style. Schade had the stock gestures of the stage ready, including that unfortunate haughty air. Gerhaher instead looked almost unhappy, uncomfortable, and nervous about taking his three songs – perhaps the result of intense concentration.
He exudes a total, very human seriousness. Serious and natural at once – which is also how his voice sounds. Admittedly his parts – “Der Einsame”, “Von der Schoenheit”, and the great “Der Abschied” – are more thankful than the tenor’s, and perhaps slightly less difficult, but that alone wasn’t enough to account for the difference between him and his colleague. Without any sense of effort, nothing sung with the perceivable intent to impress the audience, so fully focused on the music Gerhaher seemed even to let the orchestra disappear into insignificance. A touch awkward perhaps, a tad brooding, but convincing like I have never heard that part before – especially because “Der Abschied” was incomparably done.
That last song, a sort of second movement to the much shorter ones that came before, sounded not unlike “Der Leiermann” from Schubert’s Winterreise when flute and baritone presented their lamento over the double bass’ pedal point. Suddenly the work’s greatness was easy to detect and feel. And throughout there was Gerhaher’s pianissimo that stood in the room as if spoken: immovable, utterly exposed, with deadly accuracy and such great delicacy and control that only superlatives would do it justice: think of a cellist, who manages to get the finest, yet softest tone from his instrument instantaneously, instead of wiggling his way to the right pitch and dynamic level. That’s how Gerhaher’s “Ewig”. They really were “ewig” as they faded into the silence of the Herkulessaal, not hushed but nearly inaudible – terrific!